Dam Conversion and Hydro-Kinetics - a 25 GW opportunity

In a recent blog I discussed the possible use of modernized water wheels to generate electricity. I received some feedback questioning the technical feasibility of this idea which led me to do some further research into the hydro-electric power potential remaining in North America.

I was a bit surprised to learn that there is considerable potential to use existing dams, built primarily for flood control or navigation purposes, for the generation of electricity. A recent government report identified almost 12 GW of potential from these dams. Even more interesting is the concentration of this potential with some 3 GW of capacity available from the top 10 sites.

An interactive map showing the location and size of these potential dam conversions was developed as part of this report - a screen shot is shown below;

The largest of the potential dam conversion sites, known simply as dams 52 and 53 on the Ohio River, has a combined potential of more than 500 MW. By way of comparison, this site alone would generate more reliable electricity than the largest wind farm in the United States.

But knowing that a site has potential is one thing. Obtaining the funding, environmental approval, and putting together required partnerships represents a far greater challenge.

For example, dams 52 and 53 are being replaced by a new set of locks and a new dam through the Olmsted project being managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This project has been mired in controversy and cost over-runs ever since the original funding in the amount of $775 million was approved in 1988. Twenty-five years later the cost estimate is just under $3 billion and the project still has several years of construction ahead of it before it will be completed. Worst of all, it appears that no electricity generation is being incorporated into the design.

The lack of electrical generation capacity could be the result of a restricted mandate for the USACE, which has the responsibility to provide flood control and to maintain a navigable inland waterway. The development of hydro-electric facilities does not fit this mandate.

Electrical generation and distribution in Kentucky is through a regulated monopoly, the Kentucky Utilities Company (KU). Therefore the addition of hydro generation to the Olmsted project would require a partnership between KU and the USACE making an already complex project even more difficult.

In summary, although a number of very attractive dam conversion projects have been identified it will take substantial political support and expedited approvals to bring any significant production on-line in the next ten years.

Apart from the potential dam conversion projects there is also a considerable amount of untapped energy in the force of moving river water. This is termed hydro-kinetic energy and it is that energy that I was attempting to tap into with my proposal for a modernized water wheel.

A study by the Electric Power Research Institute estimated the Hydro-kinetic potential of the continental United States at approximately 120 TW-Hours which translates into about 13 GW of capacity. The feasibility of realizing this potential depends not only upon overcoming the same environmental, political, and organizational issues faced by dam conversion projects but also upon the development of cost-effective and efficient hydro-kinetic technology.

Free Flow Power holds the largest number of preliminary permits for Hydro-Kinetic power installations in the U.S. The company has installed a 40 KW turbine in the Mississippi River for two extended test runs during which the performance exceeded expectations. More than 3 dozen sites are now being considered for utility-scale deployments.

A different approach, using a device very much like the one I described in my previous blog, is being installed in Europe by Zurich-based ClearStreams-Linello AG. So far they claim 8 installations and a modular design that will allow them to deploy water wheels in many different configurations.

Rivers have always played a critical role in the development of human civilization. They were the super-highways of the ancient world. They have supplied us with clean drinking water and we have used them to irrigate our crops. They have nourished us both physically and spiritually.  And, since the development of the earliest water wheels thousands of years ago, rivers have provided us with power.

It is interesting to think that new technologies developed in the 21st century could harness the untapped kinetic energy of rivers to help us transition to a sustainable energy environment.

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